Pew survey shows unity and harmony of religions in India - it is for us to reinforce and harness that conviction, not exploit fault lines, says Ajit Ranade

The first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago between September 11 and 27, 1893. Swami Vivekananda attended as a representative of Hinduism. His first speech lasted for barely three or four minutes, and was delivered on the first day itself, sometime in the afternoon. That speech began with the booming words, ‘Sisters and Brothers of America!’, for which he got a standing ovation and a thunderous applause which lasted for two minutes, from a crowd of nearly 7,000. Press reports of the conference corroborate this phenomenal response. It is not clear, why a monk clad in unfamiliar robes, from a distant alien land, speaking with a different accent had such a remarkable effect with just his opening salutation. Much scholarly analysis is available on this perplexing question.

His short speech was on the essential unity and harmony of religions. He said, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Not just tolerance, but acceptance. Treating different faiths as equally valid. In his closing lines he said, “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism… .” The great reception that the Swami received, was undoubtedly because of his spellbinding presence and personality, but perhaps also because the audience were parched and thirsty for a message of unity and harmony.

Pew report

The great Swami’s historic speech, and life’s message is worth recounting in light of the latest survey report from the Pew Research Center of America. The report is based on a face-to-face survey of nearly 30,000 Indian adults, conducted between late 2019 and early 2020, that is before the Covid-19 pandemic. The survey takes a look at religious identity, nationalism and tolerance in Indian society. It was conducted by local interviews in 17 different languages and covers nearly all the Indian states and Union Territories. It is based on statistically sound sampling techniques.

The Pew Research Center is an organisation which is 30 years old, and conducts public opinion polls, demographic research and does content analysis and other data-driven social science research. So, its survey findings are reasonably robust. One of the key findings of this survey is that Indians value religious tolerance, and accept all faiths as belonging to India. About 85 per cent Hindus and 78 per cent Muslims believe that respecting all religions is very important to being truly Indian. Equally importantly, and overwhelming percentage of the respondents (80 per cent for Hindus, and 79 per cent for Muslims) believe that respecting other religions is a very important part of their own religious identity. Presumably, this is the influence of scriptural injunctions and the teachings of saints and sages over the ages, of respecting and accepting all religions as true. As per the Pew survey findings, 97 per cent of all Indians believe in God, though they may differ about the nature of God.

Conversions rare

An interesting finding is that religious conversion is rare. This finding is based on the question, which asked the respondents whether they were raised as something else and then acquired a new identity, that is by conversion. The percentage of Hindus or Muslims who have converted is minuscule. It is Christians who had the maximum gain, i.e. there were 0.4 per cent respondents who claimed that they had changed their faith to Christianity. Even that number is small. This finding on the rarity of conversions is important, in the light of the spate of anti-conversion laws and prohibition against inter-faith marriages that have been passed recently by several state governments.

The Pew survey also found that most Indians are against inter-faith marriages. This is peculiar when considering the Indian notion of syncretic co-existence, respect for other religions, and yet maintaining strictly segregated identities. For ages, Indians have demonstrated the capacity to hold strong and multiple identities based on religion, language, region and ethnicity, simultaneously. The Pew finding simply confirms this trait.

Identity and nationalism

Another interesting finding is that for Hindus, national identity, religion and language are closely connected. This link between Hindu identity and nationalism is particularly strong in north (69 per cent) and central India (83 per cent) and weaker in the south (42 per cent). Thus, for a majority of the Hindus, national identity goes hand-in-hand with politics. This fact perhaps explains the electoral and voting patterns of the last two national elections, which exploited the theme of Hindi, Hindu and Hindutva. And yet, remarkably, both Hindus and Muslims overwhelmingly said that they were proud to be Indian. For Muslims, this was 95 per cent of the respondents.

The research report based on the Pew survey is rich in insight since it also covers many other aspects, such as dietary habits, perception of personal laws, memories of Partition etc. Importantly, it demolishes certain myths that may have emerged, thanks to the amplification of certain narratives in the media and on social media. This is not to deny that there are fault lines in Indian society along religion, caste and linguistic identity. There is now also a palpable north-south divide, aggravated by issues surrounding federalism. But it is equally important to acknowledge that respect, tolerance, nay acceptance, of all religions is also a dominant sentiment, as confirmed by Pew.

A nation’s material progress depends not just on a solid foundation of human and physical capital, but more crucially, also on trust capital. By 2050, India will have the highest number of Hindus and Muslims in the world. It will remain, as is now, one of the most incredibly diverse nations measured along dimensions of religion and other aspects of identity. Thus, as was affirmed by Swami Vivekananda more than a century ago, or by saints and sages all along, the essential maxim to practise is the recognition of unity and harmony of all religions. The latest survey indicates that such conviction is ingrained among Indians, and it is for us to reinforce, and harness that conviction, and not magnify or exploit the fault lines.

The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution

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